So far in the Celtics-Wizards Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series, home-court has proven the decisive factor. Three games in Boston yielded three Celtics victories. The Wizards’ home record has mirrored their rivals, setting the stage for a decisive Game 7 in Boston.
Climactic clashes such as the one the Celtics and Wizards will be locked in on Monday night are nothing new for Boston fans. The Celtics have played at home in 22 Game 7s, winning 18 of them. The team’s largely successful historical record is predicated on a number of factors that are difficult to define, but are nonetheless obvious.
Al Horford, now an entrenched member of the Celtics, was once a Game 7 opponent. As a member of the Atlanta Hawks in 2008, Horford described the experience in a recent interview:
Al Horford is no stranger to Game 7 in Boston. He’s happy to be on the other side this time around. pic.twitter.com/g5NO3YPINv
— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) May 14, 2017
Getting “beat down” by an incessant crowd isn’t unique to Boston, of course. But in the old Boston Garden, there were several distinct advantages that legendary Celtics coach and team executive Red Auerbach used to draw on. Or, at least, that’s what he wanted everyone to think.
The original Boston Garden, which was replaced in 1995 by what is now TD Garden, was not the most technologically advanced building. Instead of lamenting the failings of his home court, Auerbach turned its deficiencies into yet another chapter of the Celtics’ mystique.
A recent incident in the new Garden actually brought the subject back into discussion. In the Celtics’ previous 2017 playoff series against the Bulls, a Chicago beat writer noted the following locker room story from Dwyane Wade:
Wade just informed teammates there’s no hot water for showers in visiting locker room.
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) April 27, 2017
It immediately conjured the story of a pervasive rumor that floated around the NBA for decades: Auerbach would turn off the hot water in the visitors’ locker room. The long standing myth was never definitively proven, and accounts differ.
Auerbach was also the central figure in other allegations of Celtics gamesmanship. The Garden had no air conditioning, and the Lakers were suspicious that Auerbach had turned the heat up in their locker room.
M.L. Carr, who played in Boston from 1979-1985, assured author Jeff Pearlman that Auerbach did, in fact, control the flow of hot water in the Garden, even as he denied some of the other accusations.
“Actually, not everything you hear was right,” Carr told Pearlman. “I don’t think he turned the heat on when it was really hot out. He just turned the cold water off.”
Michael Cooper, a guard on the Lakers during some of their famous clashes with the Celtics in the ’80s, simply referred to the gamesmanship as “all that bullshit Red Auerbach did.”
Auerbach, for his part, denied all of it. In a quote to Bill Simmons in 2002, he put the rumors on an “a-hole writer”:
You’re disillusioned by what you read by some a–hole writer. This is the truth — I had absolutely no control of that Garden over anything. They treated us like s—. If they had cold water, don’t you think we had cold water? The Lakers used to complain how hot it was at the Garden, that it wasn’t air-conditioned. I said to them, ‘Hey, I don’t blame you for complaining, because the half-a-court we play on is air-conditioned.’ I mean, how f—ing stupid can you be? It was the same for us.
One of the other accusations about gamesmanship revolved around the Celtics’ famous parquet floor (a tradition that was carried over into the new Garden). While other teams moved away from the parquet, Auerbach clung to it.
“It’s unique,” Auerbach told a UPI reporter in 1987. “It’s basically a good floor. It’s better than a lot of the plywood floors.”
The only catch was that it supposedly had a number of prominent dead spots. And the Celtics were thought to be masters of exploiting it. Again, Auerbach denied it. But, as with other denials, they came years after the fact.
“The whole thing was a myth,” Auerbach admitted in the ’90s when the old Garden’s days were numbered. “People thought not only that there were dead spots, but that we knew where every one was and we could play accordingly.”
“Now, did you ever watch a ballplayer go up and down the court at that speed and pick out a dead spot?” Auerbach asked. “If our players worried about that, thinking that’s going to help them win, they’re out of their cotton-picking mind. But if the other team thought that: Hey, good for us.”
In that quote, the real advantage Auerbach gained in the old Garden can be accurately discerned. While he denied turning up the heat or cutting off hot water years later, he did little to dismiss the rumors at the time. As a result, the perception became reality. Visiting teams were psychologically affected before they even arrived in Boston.
In a Boston Globe article prior to Game 7 of the 1984 finals against the Lakers, then-Celtics beat writer Dan Shaughnessy noted Los Angeles coach Pat Riley admitting the heat “bothered his team more than it did the Celtics.” The Lakers were openly distracted by the prospect of another “97-degree steambath.” A team spokesperson even told Shaughnessy that they were considering giving their players IV’s before the game.
“Dr. Kerlan and our staff are working on it,” Riley said. “We’ll fill the players up with nutrients and minerals. Whatever we can do, we’ll do.” Needless to say, the Lakers lost Game 7 in the Garden, 111-102.